“Closer to Home” and “A Path to Equity”

Validating Chicago Public Schools’ efforts to make access to school-based pre-K more equitable

There has been a substantial expansion of school-based pre-k across the country in recent years, but there is little evidence on the extent to which the students who are most likely to benefit from pre-k actually enroll in school-based programs, and thus whether these expansion efforts are related to the reduction of early achievement gaps. In 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) overhauled the way it delivered school-based pre-k in the hope of improving enrollment among “high priority” students, including students of color, low-income students, and non-English speakers. As part of its overhaul, CPS re-allocated pre-k classrooms, centralized the enrollment process, and increased the number of full-day options in neighborhoods where historically underserved students live.

NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the US Department of Education and in partnership with Start Early and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, studied the effects of CPS’s pre-k efforts. Working with secondary data, NORC researchers analyzed access to and enrollment in school-based pre-k both before and after CPS enacted its policy changes. They released their findings in a 2020 report called Closer to Home. A follow-up study called A Path to Equity examined the associations between those policy changes and students’ elementary school outcomes.

The Closer to Home study found that after CPS’s policy changes, high-priority student groups were up to three times more likely to enroll in full-day pre-k. Pre-policy, the students most likely to enroll in the CPS’s small number of full-day pre-k options (many of which required families to pay tuition) were white students, students living in the highest-income neighborhoods, and students living in mostly white neighborhoods. Post-policy, full-day pre-k opportunities expanded, and the students most likely to enroll in full-day pre-k were Black students, students living in lowest-income neighborhoods, and students living in mostly Black neighborhoods.

The Path to Equity study found that increased access and enrollment to full-day, school-based pre-k were related to higher kindergarten entry skills and ultimately better academic outcomes in second grade, particularly for high-priority students. Average second-grade math and reading test scores and academic grades increased the most for some high-priority student groups, including Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly Black neighborhoods.